The Hows and Whys of 3D Printing

3D printing is a very new topic for me. Coming in with no background information on this new technology made my research process a little challenging, but it also gave me a unique opportunity to approach a topic with no personal opinions or biases. Overall, my conclusion was that 3D printing is really freaking cool, but it also creates new problems and questions that need to be examined before implementing the technology on an even larger scale than it already has been.

How?

But before we get into that, I think it’s important to talk about how this even works.

3D printing is exactly what you would imagine it to be. Design something (virtually anything) on a computer with digital software, hit print, and the machine will create it for you in 3D form. Essentially, this is done through layers. Here’s some information from an article from The Economist titled “The Printed World,” which explains the process much better than I would ever be able to:

Image Courtesy of The Economist

“The layers are defined by software that takes a series of digital slices through a computer-aided design. Descriptions of the slices are then sent to the 3D printer to construct the respective layers. They are then put together in a number of ways. Powder can be spread onto a tray and then solidified in the required pattern with a squirt of a liquid binder or by sintering it with a laser or an electron beam. Some machines deposit filaments of molten plastic. However it is achieved, after each layer is complete the build tray is lowered by a fraction of a millimetre and the next layer is added.”

Pretty cool, huh? When I read this I couldn’t help but think of the transporter technology of Star Trek and other cool science fiction inventions, but this is real technology that is being applied to many fields of study in our world today. So why is it not more prevalent? Well, because there is a lot of debate over when 3D printing should be used and what moral consequences could arise from creating and recreating objects, especially objects from other cultures. Which brings us to…

Why? (or Why Not?)

3D printing is currently being used in many humanities fields. One example is the reconstruction of ancient Syrian structures that were destroyed by ISIS. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful, incredibly rewarding use for a 3D printer, allowing historians to directly interact with artifacts from the past, as well as bring healing to a suffering community that has been affected by terrorism. So, what’s the problem?

As with all actions, recreating destroyed Syrian artifacts sends a loaded message. The problem is that this message could be interpreted in a variety of ways. As Sarah Bond discusses in her article, Digitally Reconstructing The Faces Of Ancient Palmyra,

3D replica of a funerary bust at Bryggen Museum, image courtesy of @DrHanneke on Twitter

“The last two years have seen a particular focus on the loss of the monumental architecture and structures of Palmyra. This has been exemplified in the continued debate over whether leaving the Palmyrene ruins as they are allows for the memory of the destruction of ISIS to be better remembered, or whether the city should be rebuilt completely as a message of resistance.”

The people of the culture being studied should always be considered when making decisions like these. Unfortunately, I think it is very common for the bigger picture of the experiences of people living in these conditions to be overlooked, and recreating these structures to explore ancient civilizations could place a shadow over what is happening to the people currently living in Syria right now.

However, the fact that these questions come up and must be examined does not take away from the remarkable benefits 3D printing has provided. In Prototyping the Past, Jenterey Sayers writes,

“One of the most obvious appeals of remaking technologies that no longer function, no longer exist, or may have only existed as 2-D media is that remade technologies may be circulated as tangible reminders of what was forgotten, ignored, destroyed, or lost.”

This tangible quality is incredibly important. You can read about and research a part of history all you want, but 3D printing allows you to actually interact with and experience how people in other cultures/generations lived. This goes beyond mere nostalgia, this is a direct link to the past, and I think that is definitely something worth celebrating and pursuing.

Sources:

Digitally Reconstructing The Faces Of Ancient Palmyra

The Ethics Of 3D-Printing Syria’s Cultural Heritage

Prototyping the Past

The Printed World